Audemars Piguet has long been an enthusiastic supporter of contemporary art, believing that, like mechanical watches, works of art represent much more than what you can actually see. To put this philosophy into action, the Audemars Piguet Art Commission is a bi-annual event that celebrates art across the world.
Every two years, an artist who is not yet internationally recognized is selected to create a large-scale work of art under the guidance of a respected independent curator from their region and the Audemars Piguet Contemporary team at the headquarters of the brand in Le Brassus, Switzerland. Previous artists on the program include British artists Ruth Jarman and Joe Gerhardt, who collaborate under the name Semiconductor, and Los Angeles-based artist Lars Jan. The resulting works all remain the property of the artists.
The fifth artist selected is Phoebe Hui, based in Hong Kong. She worked with Ying Kwok, senior curator of the Tai Kwun Center for Art and Heritage, which is based in the former Central Police Center in Hong Kong. The resulting installation is titled The moon is leaving us and was unveiled at the Tai Kwun Center in April. “Audemars Piguet Contemporary encourages artists to take risks and be ambitious,” says Kwok. “He supports them with much-needed resources and expertise and helps them take their work to a whole new level.”
Hui, who trained in both Hong Kong and Central Saint Martins in London, says: “Audemars Piguet’s contemporary team has played such an important role in the development of this project. They give complete freedom to the artists to create something that reflects their personal vision and practice. At the same time, they are very practical. In my case, they introduced me to scientists, engineers, and even a former astronaut whose knowledge proved invaluable. I have no doubt that this will have a lasting impact on my career.
The initial inspiration behind the piece came from a visit Hui made to Le Brassus when she was first shortlisted. “During my stay, she explains, I was invited to dine in a family restaurant in the mountains. We took a short walk in the snow and the experience was breathtaking, especially since at home in Hong Kong I am rarely so close to nature.
Hui was fascinated by the effects of moonlight and how it illuminated the surrounding peaks, which inspired her to do further research. “I discovered that the Moon actually leaves Earth’s orbit at an average rate of about 3.78 cm per year, similar to the rate at which our fingernails grow. Even though it won’t have an impact in our lifetime, it still matters to me. It also made me realize how little I know about our planet’s satellite and how much, out of familiarity, we tend to take it for granted.
It is believed that when the Moon first formed 4.5 billion years ago, it was much closer – just 14,000 miles away, compared to 250,000 miles today. This movement is mainly due to the actions of the Earth’s tides. A measurable impact of this process is that days are getting longer by 1/500th of a second every century.
The hypothesis that the Moon was moving away from Earth was put forward 300 years ago by British astronomer Royal Edmond Halley, the first man to calculate the size of our solar system and who gave his name to the famous comet. His hypothesis was finally proven in the 1970s when scientists fired lasers at mirrors placed on the surface of the Moon by American and Soviet astronauts.
Hui’s snowy walk in the Swiss mountains also reminded her of a poem she had learned as a child. Prelude to the melody of waterwritten by 11th century writer Su Dongpo, one of the giants of Chinese literature, describes gazing at the Moon and lamenting being separated from loved ones with the line, “Although miles separate us , we will share the beauty it displays.”
This fusion of technology and experience is typical of Hui’s technique. “She presents installations with a humanistic approach,” says Ying Kwok, “to allow audiences from diverse backgrounds to connect with complex scientific ideas.”
To create the piece, Hui worked with scientists and an astronaut and discovered that depictions of the Moon are often subjective, depending on the instruments used and the data collected.
“I’m particularly interested in how technology relates to our lives today,” Hui says, “in terms of how we observe with our eyes or with an instrument, and how we record our observations. Technology is like the air we breathe.
Thanks to the pandemic, she was unable to complete her visits but continued her research with subsequent conversations on Zoom and studying photographs taken from the International Space Station. One of the most interesting things she learned came from the former astronaut who told her that the moon isn’t as gray as you think, but rather has a spectrum of bright colors. .
While researching online, she came across the work of Polish astronomer Johannes Hevelius, the founder of lunar topography, who in 1647 published the groundbreaking discovery. Selenography, Sive Lunae Descriptio. It was the first book to include a map of the moon based on Hevelius’ own observations using telescopes he built himself.
The piece itself is actually two bodies of work, both named after Selene, the ancient Greek goddess who drives the chariot of the Moon across the heavens. The first one, Selenais a custom “drawbot” that produces intricate ink drawings of the Moon.
Growing up, Hui drew cartoons and illustrations for local newspapers and this interest led her to experiment with computer programming. “The computer often surprises me with results I couldn’t have predicted,” she says, “and the robot seems to have its own personality.” The second, Seleniteis a kinetic robot with 48 mechanical arms that project various images of the Moon onto 48 different screens, juxtaposing historical astronomical renderings with contemporary scientific images.
Images courtesy of the artist and Audemars Piguet